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Write dialogue cues like a bestselling author

At the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference this weekend, I took a series of phenomenal classes from writing teacher and psychologist Margie Lawson. I thought I was a fairly decent writer—I have a few awards to prove it—but what I learned this weekend after taking Lawson’s classes is that “I don’t know nothing yet.”

Let’s just say that by the end of the day I literally had one brain cell left.

One of my favorite classes was on dialogue cues. For the most part, I’ve already learned to keep my dialogue tags short. He said. She said. And to avoid attributions like the following:

  • “I don’t like you,” he said, disdainfully
  • “I hate you,” she said, angrily
  • “Don’t move,” he growled
  • “Get away from me,” she hissed

Not only do these dialogue tags sound awful, but you can’t actually growl, hiss, laugh, or smile while speaking.

So beyond, “he said, she said,” how can you get across the tone and style of your character’s dialogue in a non-clichéd way?

I’ve heard some people say, “The dialogue should speak for itself.” That’s true to an extent, but there’s so much that can be added to the meaning and nuances of the characterization and story by using some dialogue cues.

So what is a cue, exactly? Lawson defines it as a subset of a dialogue tag that shares the subtext of the words spoken.

Examples she gives are:

From Blaze of Memory by Nalini Singh:

“I’ve forgotten nothing.” Tatiana’s voice was utterly without inflection.

From Find Me by Romily Bernard:

“We have a visitor.” Weird how my voice sounds flat and confident when my insides are churning and liquid.

From my work-in-progress:

“Huh?” I tried to look up at him but the pull of the dagger was too much. I felt like a woman who’d been reunited with her long, lost child. 

Think of dialogue cues as giving the reader subtle subtext about the psychological and emotional state of your characters. You don’t want to hit your reader over the head but you do want to enrich your storytelling with these subtle cues. In my next post, I’ll show you how I went about creating subtle dialogue cues for my characters.

For more on constructing great dialogue cues visit Lawson’s website.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great points in this post. I totally agree – the dialogue should speak for itself, but there are times you do want to go beyond he said, she said. But none of us want to end up with characters hissing and screeching. Thanks.

    July 30, 2013
  2. Sophia Rose #

    Excellent post and very helpful. Thanks!

    September 26, 2015

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